Mother, daughters build bonds and business together
HUNTINGTON -- When Patti Shaver took dance lessons as a girl, the studio at 819 10th Ave. was Ford School of Dance. When she taught dance lessons as a teen and young mother, it was Dickinson's School of Dance.
It later became The Dancing Place, and it was near the end of that era when Shaver remembers her daughter, Michelle Shaver Heiner, picking her up and driving her over to the studio for a surprising chat.
She wanted to buy it.
She wanted to go into business with her mother -- who had a wealth of experience in dance and Huntington's arts community -- and her younger sister, Marlo Shaver Wentz -- a well-respected dance instructor, who at the time was teaching in the Washington D.C. area.
And so in 2003 was born Elite Performance Academy, a studio that teaches primarily 3- through 18-year-olds ballet, jazz, acro-tumbling and tap, as well as offering learning opportunities in singing, acting twirling and more.
It was a lengthy transition for Wentz, who commuted from the Washington area for two years before being able to relocate back to her hometown permanently. But it's been a fulfilling "coming home" for this mother-daughters trio, all of whom had danced as youth in the building and who now are grateful to share their love of music and movement with other children there.
As they worked through the process of buying and starting the studio, it just seemed right, Heiner said.
"I honestly felt like it was a mission I was meant to fulfill," she said. "Things kept happening, directing me to do this. God kept pointing me in this direction."
Wentz felt the same way, and their mother is thrilled.
"It's really remarkable to have daughters who want to do what you love so much and are so fabulous with it -- just amazing with the kids," Shaver said.
It's keeping their focus on the kids that has helped things go smoothly in their family business, they said.
"Children are people's most precious jewels," Wentz said. "You have to be able to look in the mirror and re-evaluate constantly, thinking, 'Is this the best path for these children?' .. You always keep your eye on the ball, which is these dancers and what we need to do to keep them confident and prepared.. I believe God has rewarded that."
While it offers classes for all types of dancers -- the less experienced, less serious-minded dancers up through the extremely driven ones -- Elite has lived up to its name and has established a reputation on a national level for top-level competitive dancing.
Also helping things go smoothly in the mother-daughters business is the fact that they're departmentalized. Heiner teaches a bit, but is mostly the administrative director, handling business management of the studio. Wentz is the creative director. She teaches and choreographs, though there are other teachers. Shaver, the managing director, handles costuming, special projects and anything and everything else that is needed.
They cross check with each other a lot, but if there is a difference of opinion, the ultimate decision lands with the person who is over that realm, Shaver said. It keeps it simple, and they don't have a lot of time for anything else. It's a very fast-paced business, particularly when you're trying to keep up with national trends and stand out on a national level. It doesn't leave a lot of time for conflict.
"We have to be very quick on our feet," Wentz said.
What was nice for them growing up, and what they try to duplicate for their own students, is that nothing should be forced upon the kids. Wentz said she tells her students that if they decide that serious dance training is not the path they want to take, that's completely up to them. There are many paths their dancers take, depending on how serious they want to train.
Both sisters grew up in the dance studio, but said Shaver never made them dance. She simply wanted them to be introduced to it.
In fact, both girls went to college to do other things. Heiner got a marketing degree and a master's in teaching. Wentz was on the track for law school when, out of the blue, she was offered a job as a dance instructor. Her first year, she taught just two classes, and by her second year, it was more like 20 classes. Before long, she was heavily involved in training elite dancers in the Washington D.C. area.
Her students have danced on Broadway and around the world, and have gone to premier dance institutions to study. One is a Rockette and another was a finalist on "So You Think You Can Dance?"
Wentz has taught masters dance classes and has judged all over the country. And that's the caliber to which she aspires for her students here in Huntington. For those who really want to pursue advanced dance, she's not aiming for the best dancers in the state, but the best in the nation.
Heiner is quick to marvel and brag on her sister's teaching and choreography. She remembers being awestruck the first time she saw a group dance to her sister's choreography.
"She teaches kids to live the words of the music. She has a tremendous gift," Heiner said. "I'm so proud of her gift and what she's able to teach kids to do, and it's such a joy for me that someone of her caliber is here (in a smaller town)."
Coming home to teach was something that Wentz wanted desperately to do.
"I was training all these kids (in the D.C. area) and I didn't know their families," she said. "I wanted to come back home and do this with my mother and my sister in my community. I wanted to teach the kids of the people I grew up with."
In their mother, they had a perfect example of selflessness when it comes to giving back to the community, they said. Along with being patient, loving and exposing them to everything she could, Shaver demonstrated hard work in her pursuit of advancing the arts.
"She's been pivotal in the arts community," Wentz said. "If we sat down and tried to list all her contributions, I don't think we could do it."
Shaver has been involved in dance, theater, pageants, majorettes, Fifth Avenue Baptist Church and the Regatta summer celebration that Huntington used to have. Shaver also was instrumental in bringing some dance icons to Huntington, like Gus Giordano and Frank Hatchett. She met them at conventions and urged them to visit her town, her daughters said.
"I always wonder if people in the community know how much she's given, and every time she gave, we learned," Wentz said. "She's done so much and given so much of herself and never complained."
"She taught us how to work," Heiner said. "One thing we learned from her is follow-through. Do it once and do it right. Have quality behind it, no matter what you're doing."
While it was a tremendous leap of faith for the three women to open a new dance company, especially having young children of their own -- Wentz and Heiner have five sons between them -- they have always tried to follow their mother's example of selflessness in terms of keeping the children as their focus.
"It's so much fun to see them achieve their next level," Heiner said.
A positive environment -- where dancers respect and support each other -- is something they've tried to reinforce, along with other life lessons, Wentz said.
"In our 10th year, we're really starting to see kids (who have been with us over the years) benefit from the discipline, work ethic, time management -- all the things it takes to prepare to dance on a stage before an audience," Heiner said.
It takes a lot of long hours to help them along the way, and the women all expressed gratitude to their families for their support. For example, Wentz's sons have helped build props and Heiner's have driven cousins here and there when moms are busy with dance. Late night phone calls are a given, and the families have gotten used to that.
"The husbands and children involved have been amazing. Without them, you just can't do it," said Shaver, who has two sons -- Mark and Michael -- along with her two daughters, and nine grandchildren altogether.
This Mother's Day, like most, their families will go to church together at Fifth Avenue Baptist and then go to lunch before the chaos of tech week starts, leading up to their spring recital.
This year's recital, which is open to the public, will be danced at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, May 17-18, and 2 p.m. Sunday, May 19, at Marshall University's Joan C. Edwards Performing Arts Center. This special 10th anniversary event has a theme of "Elite's Best of Broadway."